There’s a ungodly type of mercy killing that receives a great deal of sympathy, if not support, in our world today. Consider the Terri Schaivo case that lasted from 1990—2005. Terri had been diagnosed by her doctors as being in a persistent vegetative state, which led her husband’s attempts to end life support. His efforts were opposed by her parents, who fought to continue life-prolonging measures until her feeding tube was finally disconnected on March 18, 2005 and her death occurred on March 31. Those who advocate mercy killing and the “right to die” would argue that it is unethical to prolong the life of someone like Shaivo, whose quality of life was clearly impaired after suffering from brain damage following cardiac arrest in 1990.
Or consider the more recent example of the well-known public radio host Diane Rehm and her husband John, whose suffering with Parkinson’s disease became so great that he wanted to die. The doctor informed John that he could not aid him in ending his life, despite his personal feelings to the contrary. In an interview with NBC News, his doctor is reported to have said, “I don’t disagree with your wish that you could die with the help of a physician but I cannot do it in the state of Maryland.” Consequently, John ended his own life by dehydration, which took nine days. After his death, Diane expressed her support for physician-assisted suicide, claiming that her husband’s slow, deliberate death was unnecessary. For more on John Rehm and physician assisted suicide, listen to Wesley Smith on this July 11th episode of Issues, Etc.
It’s ironic: while Christians can be sympathetic to something that is so contrary to God’s will, there is a often a strong resistance to the godly kind of mercy killing. The existence of a godly mercy killing is attested to by the prophet Jeremiah: “Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). This is the death that is worked by the Law of God, the crushing of the stony heart, the putting of the Old Adam to death. As St. Paul says, “through the law comes knowledge of sin,” (Romans 3:20), and such knowledge renders us spiritually dead in the sight of God (Romans 7:9).
The godly kind of mercy killing, therefore, is nothing other than the putting to death of the sinful flesh through the preaching of God’s Law. Though it may be the unpleasant, alien work of God, it is nevertheless God’s work. This is important for both those who preach and hear God’s Word to bear in mind. It is incredibly unpleasant to proclaim God’s Law in all of its sternness, much as the surgeon might find it unpleasant when cutting into the flesh of a patient during surgery. Such a thing results in bleeding, and even carries with it the risk of death.
It’s one thing to smash a rock into pieces, to use Jeremiah’s image, but it’s quite another to crush the self-righteous pride that dwells in people whom the preacher loves, himself included. Such preaching is unpleasant, it hits too close to home, and it always risks causing offense and disturbing the peace of the congregation. Fire always burns (Jeremiah 23:29). But pastors must have enough compassion to weekly administer this lethal dose of the law—for the sake of Christ and his hearers. People may avoid going to the dentist because they are afraid of pain, but this doesn’t nullify the dentist’s responsibility to do the required surgery. Most people understand that some degree of pain is necessary before healing can take place. It is no different when it comes to the preaching of God’s Law.
While pastors may be tempted to spare their hearers any discomfort when preaching the Law, to do so is actually the opposite of mercy; it’s the work of Satan. As Luther says in The Bondage of the Will,
“For Satan knows that if men were aware of their misery, he would not be able to retain a single one of them in his kingdom, because God could not but at once pity and succor them in their acknowledged and crying wretchedness, seeing he is so highly extolled throughout Scripture as being near to the contrite in heart, as Christ too declares himself according to Isaiah 61, to have been sent to preach the gospel to the poor and to bind up the brokenhearted. Accordingly, it is Satan’s work to prevent men from recognizing their plight and to keep them presuming that they can do everything they are told,” (AE 33:130; emphasis added).
Satan would keep hearers in ignorance of their disease so that they would be ignorant of their need for the healing medicine of the Gospel. He would keep hearers captive to their sin so that he might keep them captive in his kingdom. To soft peddle the wrath of God against sin is to act as the false prophets, the messengers of Satan. The sternness of God’s wrath against our sin and the depth of His mercy is seen most clearly on the cross, where God made Christ, His beloved Son, who knew no sin to be sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
God does not put to death through the Law because He delights in killing, He does so in order to raise us up to new life in the Gospel (Ephesians 2:5). The Gospel cannot be heard in its full sweetness unless the Law has first been heard in its full severity. As Luther says, those who “neither recognize sin nor feel death have no use for the mercy promised by that word,” (AE 33:138). The moment that we, by the grace of God, are shown even a hint of our wretchedness, we can do no other than flee to Christ and He to us.
The kind of mercy killing that the world finds acceptable is actually the opposite of mercy. It brings death for death’s sake. The preaching of God’s Law brings death for the sake of life, in order to prepare hearers for the Gospel. The sinful flesh resists this sort of mercy killing with every fiber of its being, but death will come one way or the other. One can die to sin or perish eternally. Mercifully, the Holy Spirit puts our sinful flesh to death through the unadulterated preaching of God’s Law and brings us to life through the Gospel. Difficult though it may be, any preaching that avoids this sort of mercy killing is the work of Satan.